The Gates of Development Heaven
In a rare glimpse into the minds of the decision makers at the networks and studios, Ben Blacker of the awesome Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast got to sit down with three development executives for an amazing 2-hour brain pickin’ podcast. You can download the podcast directly from here, but should you be pressed for time, I’ve broken down the 100 minute discussion into more bite sized pieces here.
Plenty of budding writers end up either working closely with development executives, or being one of them themselves. Especially for those of you who crave a more steady employment than the job-to-job uncertainty of professional writerhood, development could be the route for you. I’ve broken down the key points for writers that the podcast hit upon, but I’ve also included a bonus section at the end for the would-be executives out there. (Don’t forget the little guy once you’re buying scripts!)
The Actual Cast
The trio of heavy hittersthat Mr. Blacker got onto his podcast are:
CBS’ Brian Seabury Drama
Sony’s Chris Parnell (less evil than pictured)
HOLY TRINITY OF
Caitlin Foito (much harder to track down)
As people who live inside the meeting room, these execs know what they want, what they like, and have plenty of experience with hearing a writer pitch. Here’s what they had to say:
- Pitch like you’re dying to tell the story
Passion is infectious and highly visible. These executives WANT to see you get too damn excited about your project, like you can barely spit the words out for all your glee. You still want to practice your presentation of course, but if you’re bursting at the seams with excitement, odds are they’ll be too. If you act like you’ll write 100 episodes with or without them, they’ll want to hop aboard.
- Execs get most excited for material that’s brought to them outside of any sort of mandate
This sort of follows from the passion thing noted above, but these executives are inundated with agents passing along material that’s toe-ing the line. “We need the next Homeland” is a phrase that’s been spit a lot over the past year, but by the time you get anything like that in front of them, it’ll be stale. If an agent passes along a script simply because of how awesome it is, however, that’ll pique their interest every damn time.
- It’s harder to sell now than ever…
To quote one of the execs, “writers are gold right now,” but that’s a curse and a blessing, because there are so many good writers out there trying to make a living doing great TV shows. Only about 3% of pitches make it all the way to the pilot shooting stage.
- BUT there’s a niche for EVERYTHING
No longer can you bring something to an agent and have them say “there’s no place for this.” With the advent of so many content distribution channels, there’s a niche for everything, which is exactly why the quality of your writing matters now more than ever.
- It all comes back to CHARACTER
This is advice you’ll hear a thousand times, but it bears repeating. The best drama, comedy, and intrigue come from compelling characters crossing paths. Even if you’re writing an everyman sort of character, they need a weakness, a compulsion, something to separate them from the pack. Especially in a sitcom. Speaking of…
- Sitcoms are very cast-dependent
Imagine Pawnee without Nick Offerman’s transcendent Ron Swanson
The good news: Networks shoot more pilots for sitcoms than for dramas. The bad news: they do that because it’s so hard to make a good sitcom stick. So much of that comes down to the cast. Sitcoms like Parks and Rec survive so long because, besides being funny, they’re filled with heart, and their characters have chemistry across the board. But even as a writer, this isn’t out of your hands! The better the material you put onto the page, the more a strong actor can work with. On your (/our) end, it all comes down to the script, baby.
- The Big Secret: Development executives are on your side!
One point that all three of the execs on the panel hit was that, when you’re starting a pitch, the development person you’re pitching to wants to be moved. They would love nothing more than for your pitch to be the greatest thing they’ve ever heard. And given that they hear hundreds of pitches, they know a by-the-numbers pitch when they hear one. This brings me all the way back to the first bullet — be passionate about your script. It’s infectious (and you want to infect the shit out of those with the power to buy your script)!
B-B-B-BONUS SECTION: For Aspiring Development Executives
This is what it’s like in development offices
So maybe you never wanted to be a comedy writer and just stumbled upon this blog by chance. If so, welcome! Tell your friends.
Anyhoo, here are some of the tips from the NWP podcast that could serve you well in your journey into the Hollywood elite:
- Take work off your boss’ desk
Whether your last name is Smith or Spielberg, if you want to be an executive, expect to spend some time working at the desk of an existing player. It’ll give you the chance to learn the ins and outs of the industry and their job in particular as you set meetings, talk their contacts, and monitor (snoop on) their phone calls.
How do you make the most out of this experience? Make yourself invaluable. Anticipate your boss’ needs and figure out how to make your life easier. They may never want you to leave! But be sure you do (once they can hook you up with a kush gig at Disney).
- Cultivate patience and understanding
How very zen of you. Especially when scripts are being sold, from July to October, you’ll be listening to all kinds of pitches. The execs in this panel pinned the number at somewhere near 350, meaning you’ll be doing a solid 3+ every single day. So turn on your ears, build your patience, and try to keep your active ears to the ground about what people are buying and selling these days.
- Learn to give a good note
So you’ve bought a pitch and are moving forward on a project. The writer turns in a pitch and — uh oh — it’s shit. Or somewhere less than perfect, which is likely where it’ll be. Remember that us writers are fragile creatures, and it’s easy to break our wills. There’s a tragic moment in Harmontown when Dan Harmon gets notes from an exec. If you’ve ever tried to write something in your life, you’ll realize how crushing it would be to get some of the feedback he received.
So, as you should be striving for in life, make your notes as concrete as possible. Writers spend a lot of time getting to the ‘note behind the note’ AKA ‘WTF does weird mean here?’ A question well-stated is half answered. And remember to be gentle, for the love of God. If it takes about 3 extra seconds to phrase a question in a less condescending way, consider it the best investment you’ll ever make.
Hope this breakdown was enlightening! If you have another other podcasts or presentations you’d be interesting in reading a breakdown of, put the below!